Joe Cryer, 23, is research and communications assistant at British Future and part of the team that delivered the Voice of a Generation project with the Daily Mirror. Over the course of the project Joe travelled to Barnsley, Sheffield, Brighton, Cardiff, Dudley, Southampton, Hampshire, London and Leicester, and spoke to over 100 young people about politics and the issues they care most about. Here Joe offers his reflections on the project and on young people’s views on politics.
1. Trust is the name of the game
If there’s one thing that jumps out as a key gripe for young voters, it’s the extent to which they feel they can – or can’t – trust politicians. Opinions differ of course; there are those who think every politician is in it for themselves, working to retain the status quo and keep wealth and power confined within a political elite; and those who feel that on the whole most politicians try to do the best they can.
What is noticeable, however, is how regularly the topic arises when listening to the youngest members of our electorate. Trust is important for everyone when it comes to voting, but for first-time voters it seems more of a pressing issue. As Montel, 19, from Dudley explained to us: politics is about choosing people we trust to represent us, “and I think with politicians we’ve lost that trust”.
When asked what would make politics matter more to them, or make them engage more with politics, being able to trust politicians, and having politicians who keep their promises comes up frequently. There is a constant sense from the youngest potential voters that they are not being told the full story, and struggle more and more to believe what they hear from politicians, and in the media for that matter.
Young voters would like a lot of different things from a government, but some honesty from politicians seems to be a common demand across the board.
2. When it comes to votes at 16, age isn’t the deciding factor you might expect it to be
When speaking with younger voters, the idea of being able to vote at the age of 16 doesn’t tend to come up as much as one might think it would. When it does, the driving factor behind people’s attitudes to voting at 16 is more to do with how engaged each individual is with politics in the UK. Those who are interested in the political system, and have already decided who they are going to vote for, or at least that they definitely will vote, are generally in favour of votes at 16. At that age you can still be significantly affected by decisions taken in government, they would argue, so why shouldn’t you have your say in determining who makes up that government?
For those less engaged in politics, the idea of voting at 16 doesn’t particularly appeal. They think turnout would be very low, and they aren’t confident that 16 year olds would be able to make “sensible decisions”.
For young people, perhaps more than any other group, the question of votes at 16 really depends on how you view your own engagement with politics, and whether you personally would have gone out to the polls a few years ago. Looking at it this way it is easy to see why those already engaged are in favour, and those who are not don’t think it’s a good idea. For the youngest members of the electorate, ‘votes at 16’ is certainly an extension of their own feelings surrounding politics and voting.
3. UKIP aren’t without young support, but they’re too easy to write off
Support for most parties exhibits an age trend, but when looking at UKIP that trend is sharper than normal. The older you are, the more likely you are to vote for UKIP. That doesn’t mean UKIP are devoid of support amongst the youngest voters, however. Interestingly, the young voters we met who were considering voting UKIP tended to be relatively engaged in politics. For them, UKIP is giving them two things: firstly, jobs and education policies that appear targeted towards young people; and secondly a political force that they see very differently from the established Westminster parties. These are attractive propositions, especially when combined with the lack of faith young people have in the current political parties and the system as a whole.
For most young people, however, UKIP’s image is still far too toxic for them to consider going purple this May. The young people we spoke to are generally disheartened by negative rhetoric in politics, and they feel that UKIP is guilty too often of scapegoating immigrants. Negativity doesn’t win over young voters: for the same reasons that the bickering and point-scoring of the main political parties is a turn-off, young people aren’t getting behind Nigel Farage in any numbers.
For those who consider themselves disengaged with politics, UKIP tended not to seem a viable option. Perhaps a surprise when much is made of UKIP’s appeal to voters at their wits’ end with the current political system and looking for a party who do things differently. But being disenchanted and being ‘left behind’ are perhaps not quite the same.
4. It’s not just those who are interested in politics who want to see it taught in schools
Politics is currently a relatively niche A Level subject in the UK, and even more so at GCSE. Of all of the young people we spoke with only a handful had learned about politics at school, and when they had it was out of an active interest in the topic. Of course, quite a few more had done some politics in Citizenship classes but the impression we got was that it was far from engaging. But when we talked about how to get young people more engaged with politics, the idea of compulsory political education in schools received a widely positive response from the whole range of different people we spoke to.
Unlike ‘votes at 16’, the issue of political education is popular with both the engaged and the disengaged youth. Arguably even more so amongst those who are not interested in politics, as for many it is a lack of knowledge that has led to a lack of engagement. One thing that is certain is that even the most self-confessedly uninterested young people have opinions on a wide range of policy areas, know what issues affect their day to day lives, and what they care about more generally. The disconnect between these opinions and politics is where disengagement comes from.
For many of the young people we spoke to, teaching politics in schools is one answer. If you can remember pi to 3 decimal places (FYI it’s 3.142) and know how to use an apostrophe properly, then you ought to have a vague understanding of which party stands for what.
The idea is not without major pitfalls: altering the national curriculum, keeping out party political bias and ensuring teaching is fit for purpose is no small task, but with the school leaving age rising to 18 many of our youngest voters felt that we have a responsibility to talk about this in schools and colleges. After all, a better informed, more confident electorate has to be a positive for democracy.
5. Like it or not, you have to go to them
First-time voters want to vote. But for all manner of reasons almost two thirds of them in the UK don’t turn out on Election Day. Because they don’t want to go to the polls feeling like they don’t know who or what they are voting for, many of them will give it a miss. Unfortunately, it is also perceived that there are few incentives for a lot of young people to do their own research and work these things out for themselves. Such is the self-inflicted paradox of the typical first-time voter.
The upside is that young voters do want to be engaged by those in positions of responsibility. They want to meet their MPs and PPCs, and they think that these politicians need to do more to meet their youngest voting constituents. As far as our 18-22 year olds are concerned the onus is very much on politics to engage with young people, not the other way round. Their vote is a commodity after all, and they aren’t going to go out of their way to spend it without good reason.
Regardless of one’s views on this peculiar dynamic, the fact remains that first-time voters represent a demographic whose support could be tapped into by parties and politicians. But doing so will require a hands-on approach, and many of our participants have high expectations when it comes to the level of personal engagement they would like to see from their local politicians.
The value of actually interacting with young people on a national, constituency or local level, however, must not be ignored. By meeting and talking to someone who is deciding whether politics matters to them you ground their expectations and understanding of what politics is and what it can do. The disconnect between young people, Westminster and voting can be addressed in part by proving that politicians are people too. And to prove that you will have to go out and meet some young people.